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, 57 (1), 1-25

In Pursuit of Precision: The Calibration of Minds and Machines in Late Nineteenth-Century Psychology


In Pursuit of Precision: The Calibration of Minds and Machines in Late Nineteenth-Century Psychology

R Benschop et al. Ann Sci.


A prominent feature of late nineteenth-century psychology was its intense preoccupation with precision. Precision was at once an ideal and an argument: the quest for precision helped psychology to establish its status as a mature science, sharing a characteristic concern with the natural sciences. We will analyse how psychologists set out to produce precision in 'mental chronometry', the measurement of the duration of psychological processes. In his Leipzig laboratory, Wundt inaugurated an elaborate research programme on mental chronometry. We will look at the problem of calibration of experimental apparatus and will describe the intricate material, literary, and social technologies involved in the manufacture of precision. First, we shall discuss some of the technical problems involved in the measurement of ever shorter time-spans. Next, the Cattell-Berger experiments will help us to argue against the received view that all the precision went into the hardware, and practically none into the social organization of experimentation. Experimenters made deliberate efforts to bring themselves and their subjects under a regime of control and calibration similar to that which reigned over the experimental machinery. In Leipzig psychology, the particular blend of material and social technology resulted in a specific object of study: the generalized mind. We will then show that the distribution of precision in experimental psychology outside Leipzig demanded a concerted effort of instruments, texts, and people. It will appear that the forceful attempts to produce precision and uniformity had some rather paradoxical consequences.

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